Click here to read Part 1 - 8 Steps to Conquering Target Panic by Randy Ulmer
Prevention And Treatment
You may hear of many quick fixes reputed to "cure" target panic. Unfortunately they seldom, if ever, work. There have also been many gadgets designed and marketed to "fix" target panic. Many bowhunters spend a great deal of money and time on these.
To the best of my knowledge, none are effective as a long-term solution. Many of these ideas or devices will work for a short period of time, until your subconscious becomes familiar with the new routine and recognizes and overcomes the "trick."
I am going to outline a treatment protocol for target panic. This regimen will not be easy! It will be very long, boring, and time-consuming. You must be fully committed to the cure for it to be successful. Unfortunately, even after you have completed the regimen, you will need to continue practicing preventative measures to avoid a relapse.
The reason so many people struggle and fail to manage target panic is that they don't fully commit to the treatment protocol. It is not easy. However, the great thing about working on this condition is that the treatment program will make you a much better overall archer in the long run.
(Disclaimer: This is only a quasi-scientifically based treatment protocol. It is loosely based on the principle of systematic desensitization. We will try to establish different associations during the shot process. While working through this protocol, you will slowly unlearn undesirable behaviors and replace them with different, more desirable, behaviors.)
I'm going to borrow a page from the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program here: The first step to curing target panic is to admit that you have the problem, and also that you have no control over it. I mean this! Once you have come to this realization and are willing to admit it (at least to yourself), you can proceed with the full treatment protocol. It is best to wait until the offseason to begin the program, so you will have plenty of time before the hunting season (or tournament season) to fully adapt.
Step 1: Learn to shoot a hinge-style release aid
The hinge release has a functionality that will most likely be unfamiliar to you, and it will help reprogram your brain in regards to the release process.
To eliminate the distraction of the bow (and the shot), we will use a length of release rope (or similar-diameter string) to learn the basics of this release aid. Tie a length of string so that it ends up as a loop about as long as your draw length. Hook one end of the loop over your bow hand, and hold it as if it were the bow's handle. Hook your release aid to the other end of the loop so that you are shooting a "pretend" bow. Adjust the loop's length until it simulates your draw length.
(Too short is better than too long.) As you begin to practice, be smooth and consistent. Concentrate on relaxation and follow-through. The release should be a surprise every time you execute it, and there should be absolutely no anxiety surrounding the release process.
Don't begin shooting your bow with this release aid until its function becomes second nature to you.
Step 2: Shoot your bow with your eyes closed.
Someone a lot smarter than me once said, "The best way to screw up a perfectly good shot is to aim." People tend to try to exert too much control over the aiming process. They want to hold the pin perfectly still, and they can't. Remember this: It is impossible for anyone to hold the pin perfectly still, especially you! Accept and embrace the motion.
To eliminate the process of aiming, you must shoot with your eyes closed. This also makes it easier to fully "feel" a perfect shot. The key to a perfectly executed shot is relaxation. So the perfect shot is a paradox — relaxation is absolutely necessary, yet it takes tension to hold the bow back. You have to learn to fully relax all parts of the body not necessary to hold the bow up and hold it back. The best way to learn to establish this balance is to shoot with your eyes closed and your "sense of feel" wide open.
Before you begin this exercise, lower the poundage of your bow so it is very easy to pull and to hold. As with Step One, this phase is about reconditioning your mind. Stand about three feet in front of an archery backstop (I use a hanging bag). While learning to execute the perfect shot, use a single arrow, and slow the process way down. Take time to reflect and analyze each aspect of every shot.
You should develop a process that you can repeat exactly the same way for each shot. (As a side note, many top competitive archers begin each practice session by shooting with their eyes closed. I call it "finding my shot.")
At some point you will begin to feel completely relaxed and immersed in the shot process. You will experience no fear or discomfort. The release will come as a complete surprise, with no reaction from you either mentally or physically. It can lead to a Zen-like state of mind. Once you can summon this perfect shot repeatedly and on command, you are ready for the next step.
Step 3: Shooting with your eyes open without a sight attached to your bow.
This step merely introduces one more external stimulus — vision. However, there is no aiming apparatus to distract you from the feel of the shot. Remain close to the backstop, and continue to shoot just one arrow. Concentrate on complete relaxation and the feel of the perfect shot.
You may want to close your eyes occasionally when you lose "the feel." Again, once you can summon the perfect shot at will, with your eyes open, you are ready to move on to Step Four.
Step 4: Shooting with a sight and a target.
This step introduces two additional stimuli — a sight and a target. Logic would tell us that we should add just one additional stimulus during each step. However, if you do not add a target face during this step, you will end up aiming at small holes or defects in the backstop, and I don't want you aiming that finely yet.
You must use a brand new target face, one without a tiny "X" or any other defects inside the 10 ring. The target should be large enough so that no matter how badly you shake, your pin will never leave the inside of the 10 ring. Stay close to the backstop (three feet), and adjust your sight to make sure your arrow hits nowhere close to the center of the target.
I want you to have no visual indication as to where your arrow is hitting. Allow your pin to float in the yellow while you execute the same relaxed shot you learned in the previous steps. As before, you may need to close your eyes occasionally when you lose "the feel." When you can summon "the feel" at will while aiming, you are ready to move on to Step Five.
Step 5: Move back to five yards and aim only.
Use a very large target face. Pull the bow back and aim for 15 seconds, but DO NOT shoot. Let down. Rest 30 seconds and repeat. Focus on reducing the movement in your pin by relaxing. Experiment to determine what makes the bow's movement slow down. (You will want to try to copy this particular form when you begin to shoot again.)
Always have an arrow on the string for this phase, just in case the bow goes off. I want you to become very comfortable with your pin in the middle of the target. I want you to teach your subconscious that it is okay to have the pin in the center of the target, and also to break any automatic reflex you may have to fire the shot when the pin is in the middle. Once you can do this repeatedly, and with no anxiety, you may move on to Step Six.
Step 6: Shoot at five yards.
Keep your sight adjusted (way up or way down) so that your arrows will hit far from the target's center. I do not want you to see where your arrows are hitting as you shoot. (We do not want to introduce the pressure of grouping yet.)
Continue to shoot just one arrow, and then retrieve it. Walking back and forth to get that single arrow may seem like a waste of time. It is not. This process will help you slow down and analyze each shot. Focus on every aspect of the shot process and relax, relax, relax. Again, when you can summon the perfect "feel" repeatedly and on command, you are ready to move farther back.
When you are ready, move back to 10 yards and repeat Step Six. When you are comfortable there, move back to 15 yards, and then to 20. Continue using the same large target face. If you are still comfortable, move on to Step Seven.
Step 7: Shoot for score.
Move back up to five yards, and adjust your sight so that your arrow hits the center of the target. Continue to shoot just one arrow. Use the same large target face as in Step Six. You may begin to keep score now. Your pin should never leave the large 10 ring, so theoretically you should shoot a perfect score.
The point of this exercise is to introduce one more key anxiety-producing stressor: visible and quantifiable results of the shooting process. Once you are comfortable at five yards, you may move back to 10 yards, then 15, and then 20. When you are comfortable at 20 yards, you may introduce ever-smaller targets.
As in all the previous steps, you are trying to hold on to the same form, rhythm, relaxation, and feel you developed in Step One. As you move back and shoot at smaller and smaller targets, it will become more and more difficult to maintain "the feel." The aiming process will become more difficult, more important, and more integral to the outcome of the shot. Try to focus on the shot process and "the feel." Let the results (where the arrow hits) be of secondary importance. This is much more difficult than it sounds.
Step 8: Transition to your old release aid and draw weight.
Start with your eyes closed, and stand close to the target until you can get the same feeling with your old release aid as you did with the back-tension release aid. Keep the draw weight low for now.
Shoot this release aid as similarly as you can to the way you shot the hinge release. Do not shoot it by pulling the trigger with your index finger. Instead, lay your finger on the trigger deeply, and tighten your back muscles until it fires as a surprise.
Once comfortable with this release, you may gradually increase your draw weight. I would encourage you to continue to do most of your practicing and shooting with the hinge release. Use your trigger release only for hunting. This is what I do every season.
During each of these steps, you must be the judge of your progress. You must decide when you are ready to go to the next phase. Do not hurry the process. If you do, your anxiety will return. It is your job to recognize anxiety creeping back in, and it will — repeatedly!
If you feel it, you must move backward through the steps to the point where you can consistently shoot a perfectly relaxed shot. Then move forward through the steps again. Once you have been through all of the steps once, you will be able to go through them the next time much more quickly.
As I said before, I go all the way back to the first step before every serious practice session. If you are fully honest with yourself, you will have to move backward and forward through these steps many times.
Anxiety will always be an integral element of any shot that matters to us. Anxiety is a psychological and physiological condition that is impossible to completely eliminate. We must learn to live with it, and to perform well in spite of it. One of the best ways I've found to reduce anxiety is to be fully prepared and confident. Practice diligently and intelligently, maintain and tune your equipment, stay in good physical and mental condition, eat right, and get quality rest.
Many people believe that once you "cure" a case of target panic it is gone. They think you would have to "catch the virus" again to contract the disease a second time — like the flu. I disagree with them. I believe target panic is more like alcoholism. If you are an alcoholic, you will always be an alcoholic. You must work every day to ensure that you will not have a relapse. The good news is the preventative measures we use to avoid a relapse will make you a better archer, even if target panic was not an issue.
Alcoholics have a mantra called the "Serenity Prayer," and I think it is appropriate for target panic sufferers, too. It goes, "Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference."
There are certain things you can control in any given shooting situation. Do your best to control them. There are other things you cannot control, such as how well someone else is shooting in a tournament, or when a buck is going to move. Accept these things as they are, and do not let them affect your performance. In reality, the only thing you can completely control is yourself, so learn to exercise complete self-control.